Beethoven Piano Sonata Op.31, No.3 in E-flat Major

by Hui-tzu Lin

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770 - 1827, lived at a time when new and powerful forces were abroad in human society, forces which affected him and made themselves felt in his work. Historically, Beethoven's work is built on the conventions, genres, and styles of the Classic period. Through external circumstances and the force of his own genius, he transformed this heritage and become the source of much that was characteristic of the Romantic period.

Everybody knows that Beethoven was ahead of his time, and so was his piano playing. It had unprecedented power, personality and emotional appeal. In many respects he can be considered the first romantic pianist: the one who broke all of the laws in the name of expression; the one who thought orchestrally and achieved orchestral effects on the piano. In this he was alone in his day, and his like was not to be seen until the maturity of Franz Liszt.

It has been customary to divide Beethoven's works into three periods on the basis of style and chronology. Now, let's focus only on the piano works. The first period is said go to about 1802. Composed during that time were the first ten piano sonatas (through Op.14). The works of this time naturally show most clearly Beethoven's dependence on the Classic tradition. For instance, the first three piano sonatas Op.2 contain some passages reminiscent of Haydn. The second period, from year 1803 to 1816, includes seventeen sonatas, from Op.22 to Op.90, and the Piano Concertos in G and E flat major (Emperor Concerto). The last period, 1817 - 1827, in which Beethoven's music becomes more reflective and introspective, includes the last five piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations.

Sonata in E flat Major Op.31 No.3 was composed in his second period. " I am by no means satisfied with my works hitherto, and I intend to make a fresh start from today," said Beethoven, according to Carl Czerny's account, to his friend Wenzel Krumpholz. the violin-teacher. Czerny believes that the remark was made shortly before the appearance of Op.31; "in which," he says, "one can trace the partial fulfillment of his new resolution." It is to be believed that the scherzo and finale of the E flat major sonata mark the beginnings of the new phrase. This new development is psychologically easy to understand. From the moment that Beethoven consciously set the poetic idea in the foreground, he had come to regard virtuosity merely as the necessary medium of a new type of musical expression.

This sonata,Op.31, No.3, was composed in 1802 and it is Beethoven's most bright and cheerful piano sonata. Unusually, there is no dedication. Op.31 No.1 and 2 were first published in 1803 in an edition called Repertoire des clavecinistes. A subsequent edition corrected by Beethoven then appeared, as ,ODeux Sonatesp.31, Edition tres correcte. This was published by Simrock, but still giving only the first two sonatas. This sonata, No.3, first appeared on its own without an opus number, Edition Nageli, in 1804. In 1805, Cappi brought out all three sonatas in one volume. It is notable that this sonata, Op.31 No.3, with the exception of Op.106, is the last of the piano sonatas to contain four movements, and is the last one to include a formal minuet. Moreover, in all of the four movements not one of them goes at a slow pace. The absence of a slow movement helps to emphasize the light but deeply happy mood of the whole sonata.These four movements are Allegro, Scherzo, Minuet, and Presto.

Allegro, the first movement, is in classic sonata form. The Allegro, as well as the second movement, has a reversion to Beethoven's early manner, and to a Mozartian type of writing. Practically everything in the first movement, which superficially suggests an earlier period, turns out to be among the strongest proof of its "second-period" quality. The most obvious is the Alberti bass, which is used in this movement more than in any music for some years. It occurs in the second subject, and even the manner in which the harmony is adapted to implications of the upper part is far from that of the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the most obviously individual thing about the movement as a whole is its ambiguous opening, which we can only associate with Beethoven. We can say that this is a definite "second period" characteristic. Marion Scott describes this opening passage as " a wonderful soft call to attention--as if the Evening Star tapped on the casement". In this opening measures the composer asks a question, which contain the motive a (the descending motion) and motive b (the ascending chromatic scale), and this repeatedly throughout the movement.

The opening begins on the subdominant of E flat major, and then the chords have glided chromatically into the dominant. After a second appearance of the cadence from measure seven to measure eight, a tonic pedal asserts the actual tonic harmony much more firmly. In fact, the entire exposition is not so much in E flat major as "round about" E flat major. The transition, began at measure 25, produces interesting development beginning with motive a in the minor and was cutting out in order to modulate through motive b to B flat major for the second subject. The last few bars approaching the second subject descend through five F's (B flat in the Recapitulation), which is also made from motive a. All sweetness and light, Beethoven suddenly produces an enchanting second subject, a simple Mozart-like melodic line with alberti bass in the left hand, a tune that must certainly be classed as one of the happiest he ever wrote.

The form may be summarized as follows:

1st theme
2nd theme




Scherzo: Allegretto vivace. Nobody would have dreamt of calling this movement a scherzo if Beethoven had not explicitly done so. The scherzo, in 2/4 time, begins on a lively march with a characteristic emphasis on the last eighth note of each bar. The bass recalls the Largo of Op.7 and the Andante of Op.28. And with the simplest of main themes, which nevertheless went through five or six main versions in his 1802-3 sketchbook before assuming its final form.This scherzo is a sonata movement with a strong rondo suggestion. The certain staccato effects are common in his later works. The whole dynamic scheme of the scherzo should be carefully noticed, which gives it a restless character. Harmony also has a good deal to do with this character. The sudden outburst of F major, like the crack of a whip, is where the transition to the second subject begins. The second subject itself, in E flat major, tries to be more amiable. There is a very brief coda, ingeniously made from a perfectly natural continuation of the second subject and humorously clinched by bare dominant and tonic octaves. In conclusion, the whole movement is a strikingly original exhibition of humorous fantasy illustrated by a master of virtuosity.

Menuetto/Trio: Moderato e grazioso. The minuet is a tender song-melody; yet surprises arise in the trio that was used by Saint-Saens as the basis for his Variations on a theme of Beethoven for four-hand piano Op.35. This was the last time that Beethoven used minuet in a major piano work. The minuet, with a beautiful singing tune presented in terms of the utmost simplicity, has two strains of eight bars, each repeated, with the endings so modified as to interlock with the repeat at first and to make a full close, delayed by an appoggiatura, the second time. In contrast, the trio section consists of very short phrases and single chords. Diminished sevenths make another harmonic inflection in the first, the minor ninths arising in the second, where the chords become for three bars grouped into a 2/4 cross-rhythm against the prevailing 3/4. The minuet is repeated, and then the tiny coda, based on the principal feature of Ex.7, is governed by the minor ninth complex of the second half of the minuet.

Presto con fuoco. The finale of this sonata is sometimes called La Chass or The Hunt. This movement is again in sonata form, moreover, a sonata-form tarantella, and one of the two greatest pieces of this type ever written for the piano, the other being the finale of Schubert's c minor Sonata, D.958. This Presto is a study in continuous rhythmic patterns, two of which are almost unceasingly used. The first, heard at the opening, is a figure of accompaniment. The second is the "horn" theme made of broken sextolets (six notes played in the time of four notes of equal value) in saltato rhythm ("jumping"; on string instruments, a bowing technique where the bow is bounced lightly on the string). However, the last movement of Op.31 No.3 is caused by the non-stop drive of the rhythm and the elemental appeal of the harmony.

In conclusion, this sonata, Op. 31 No.3, shows a great deal sense of humor. So much stress has been laid on the near-divine quality of Beethoven that we tend to feel something almost sacrilegious in treating him as a human being. Yet he was the greater man for being able to laugh as well as weep. This sonata certainly represents his good sense of happiness and humor.

Hopkins, Antony. Talking About music: Symphonies, Concertos, and Sonatas.London: Pan Books, 1977.
Matthews, Denis. Beethoven Piano Sonata. London: British Broadcasting Corporation,1967.
Schonberg, Harold C. The Great Pianists From Mozart to the Present. Schuster: New York, 1987.
Wilkinson, Charles W.. Well-Know Piano Solos: How to Play Them. Philadelphia:Theo. Presser Co., 1915.

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